Dounia Hattabi ’18 LL.M.
2017 – 2018 Human Rights Fellow
In 2013, Dounia Hattabi ’18 LL.M. earned two master’s degrees in law from Sorbonne Law School in Paris, and then she moved to The Hague to pursue her aspiration of contributing to international justice. After gaining experience at the International Criminal Court and in Cambodia, she took a position as a legal assistant at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague.
The tribunal was established by the United Nations to prosecute those accused of carrying out a February 2005 terrorist attack in Beirut that killed 22 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon. This international tribunal was the first to deal with charges of terrorism as an international crime. Hattabi worked on the defense team of Hassan Habib Merhi, who is still at large and being tried in absentia.
The case has been a fascinating forensic exercise—and the subject of a New York Times Magazine story—in part because of the lack of traditional evidence. According to the Times, the case is based almost entirely on cell phone metadata, and Hattabi agreed that the technological aspects of the case were amongst the most challenging.
“You had to understand the implications of how you can use new technology in a criminal trial and also the limits of it,” she said.
Hattabi stressed the importance of upholding the highest standards in international courts, despite the complexity of the cases.
“If you want a meaningful and just end result, whether acquittal or conviction, you need extremely well-trained lawyers doing their job with great dedication,” she said.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, where Hattabi started as an intern, was not her first involvement with the United Nations. Previously, she worked for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was set up to prosecute senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Hattabi says she has oriented her career towards international justice because she wants to make a concrete contribution to improving accountability for violations of victims’ rights, preserving the fair trial rights of accused persons, and developing a mature system of international criminal law.
Hattabi, who grew up in a multicultural environment, has French master’s degrees in international law and public international law and international organizations. As a Human Rights Fellow and as a recipient of the Baker McKenzie Scholarship at Columbia Law School, she plans to focus mostly on human rights, international humanitarian law, and criminal law, taking courses such as Evidence and National Security Investigations and Prosecutions—both taught by former federal prosecutors—in her first semester, and focusing on international human rights law and advocacy in her second. After completing her LL.M., Hattabi aims to develop an international and transnational practice of human rights litigation.
“The human rights community at Columbia Law School is really impressive,” she said. She’s thrilled to be around “like-minded people” and believes “this synergy has the potential to be life-changing.”